He pulled up to the entrance of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), in Durban, South Africa. He was ushered into the frenzy of orientation week, took tours of the campus, chose his subjects and made friends. He was just like any other first–year student, buzzing with the future. Previn Naicker was 14 years old.
“For me personally, my age wasn’t such a big deal. I knew what it meant, I knew that it was an achievement, everyone around me knew it was an achievement. At that point, I just thought it was cool.”
Naicker isn’t just a varsity anomaly. Born in Durban, he attended Durwest Primary School. After winning a Maths Olympiad in grade six, at the age of 12, he was offered a scholarship to Star College, a private college with a focus on maths, science and technology. Although the youngest, he was one of nine students who entered an accelerated program which gave him a triple promotion from Grade Eight to Grade 12. Apart from some harmless jokes, he hardly noticed that he was the youngest.
“You always get jokes coming your way but it was never too bad, just poking fun at the situation. Going into university, I was obviously younger and I still managed to make friends and get along with people. There were no challenges. The only challenge at university is just focusing and getting your work done, but that’s the same challenge for everybody,” he says.
He did his undergraduate degree at UKZN in biomedical science and his honors in medical biochemistry. He took a gap year in 2010 to ponder deep questions related to his field. Like any scientist, he’s methodical and his gap year was spent carefully analyzing all his options. He began studying protein structure and function, analyzing diseases and how they relate to protein structure function. He applied for his master’s which he then converted to a PhD at the age of 21. In 2013, he began working at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
“I still enjoyed myself being around friends. It’s an enjoyable time in life. I wasn’t really affected by what other people were doing and what I wasn’t doing.”
“I don’t know if people expect you to be a socially awkward person when you finish younger but that wasn’t the case,” he says.
By the age of 23, Naicker had earned his PhD degree in biochemistry from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, making him one of Africa’s youngest doctoral graduates, despite the delay of a gap year.
Naicker isn’t bursting with the tales of being a young prodigy; he’s unassuming and practical and broaches every aspect of life scientifically.
“It’s hard to have it all figured out, no matter where you are. There are people who have 15 years of experience in a field who want to change their path. Looking back, I’m happier than I was going through the academic process. In hindsight, things turned out better than I thought – I’ve learned so much.”
“I’m at a stage where I have as much experience in my field as my peers. It’s a competitive advantage. In five years, I’ll achieve what I want to and I’ll still have my youth. I’ll be more energetic – there are no challenges just advantages,” he says.
“You’ll never really know until you experience it. No matter how calculating you want to be, you have to experience. I always thought I was an old spirit in a young body.”
You can’t argue with that.